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Interview Flowers

Flowers as conversation starters


Words by Suzanna Knight

Photos by Isolde Woudstra

When Paris became ground zero for carefully coordinated terrorist attacks in November 2015, fear and distrust reigned supreme in cities all over the world. Citizens were told to be wary and vigilant, stay safe and remain observant. A culture of distrust slowly crept in; a normal reaction, but also the wrong one, according to Anne Zwartbol. Instead of avoiding the city, she and her flower girls headed to Paris after the attacks to hand out flowers to strangers on the streets, something Anne has been doing in Amsterdam for three years, to meet strangers, to stress that human connection is the key to a kinder society, and show that we don’t have to fear the things we don’t know. We joined Anne on one of her flower trips around Amsterdam Oost, and witnessed the simple power of a flower and a conversation.

Most people living in cities are strangers to one another, but you’re trying to connect them. How did that start?

I’d been playing with the idea of doing something for a stranger more often, but wasn’t exactly sure how or what. When my boyfriend and I went on a hitchhiking holiday, I had this epiphany. The people who gave us a ride were always French or Belgian, never Dutch. The Dutch people we asked literally said they didn’t trust us. I realised that there’s a strong, cultural sense of distrust here, and everyone is very much in their own world, especially in cities. I wanted to break through that somehow. One afternoon, I was buying flowers for myself like I often do, and remembered how nice it is to get flowers from someone else. It made me want to give them away, make someone else’s day. It would be the nicest way to break the barriers between strangers, to give them something nice, just because, and to create some more trust and kindness. I didn’t do it right away, I thought about it for a week or so and the idea only got bigger. A week later, I went out and gave away my first bouquet.

There’s a strong, cultural sense of distrust, especially in cities. I wanted to break through that.
Anne Zwartbol

Can you tell us about that first day?

I went to a community centre around the corner from where I live in Amsterdam-Oost. I had no idea what to say. I went up to two guys and said, “Hey, do you want some flowers?” Dead silence. Then they asked why and said they didn’t like flowers, but the bartender across the room did. He was pretty startled too, and kept asking things like why, are you from an organisation? A political party? Who paid for this? That’s a really common reaction – we’re so wired to be suspicious. A few days later he sent me a picture of himself standing proudly next to his flowers. That made me realise I was onto something.


What effect does receiving a bouquet of flowers have on people?

Traditionally, you get flowers when you’ve accomplished something, when you have something to celebrate. Even if you’ve done nothing that day, getting flowers makes you feel like you have. Flowers are always pretty, you’re hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t break out smiling when you offer them flowers. The other day I was invited to hand out flowers at a retirement home; that tiny bit of attention, just getting a single flower and some conversation, really makes a difference. And it’s such a small and simple gesture. That, combined with the message of connecting strangers and making cities a kinder place, it changes people a bit. You’re getting something just for being a person walking down the street, not because you’re sad or have achieved something. It’s just for being you.

So when you’re doing your weekly flower rounds, you don’t choose anyone in particular

People ask me that all the time: do you look for the saddest person in the crowd? I really don’t. The whole concept is to give flowers just because. No one has to look like they deserve them, it’s completely random. I do like to challenge myself; it’s easy to hand out flowers to people who are already connecting to you somehow, with a smile or a nod,  but the project is about connecting with strangers and crossing boundaries – my own as well. I want to connect with people I never would’ve talked to otherwise even though there’s no reason not to, and break and shatter my own stereotypes. The other day I walked past a squatted building, and decided to knock on the door and see what would happen. We spent half an hour chatting, it was such a lovely conversation. I would never have done that before. The project is really a two-way street; I get to make people happy with flowers, and they help me get out of my comfort zone and learn about the people around me. That’s the essence of the project, to just get to know one another.

Bloemen Voor has been going for three years. How do you see it developing?

I started by myself, but there are a few girls helping out now who reached out on Facebook. We don’t work with rules or fixed days or anything; it should be a passion project for everyone. There are people who started their own initiatives based on Bloemen Voor, which is wonderful. My goal is to get everyone in the Netherlands to give a flower to a stranger by 2020, so the more the merrier! I’d like to take the project beyond the Netherlands and continue with it if I go travelling for six months. It’d be interesting to see how the project evolves in different cultures, and how someone’s background influences their reaction. Julia, one of our flowers girls, handed out flowers in Canada, and she was immediately invited to someone’s home for tea and cookies and even dinner; that would never happen in a city in the Netherlands, but maybe it should. We could use an extra dose of kindness these days, in any form.